Hip-hop has waited on the Atlanta rapper to have a big commercial breakthrough, but he’s already won.
Last week, Young Thug called out Pusha T for dissing Drake on an unreleased song. For those keeping track, this is Thugger’s third rap beef in twelve months. He’s never afraid to speak his mind. He’ll call out your favorite rapper, make a problematic statement, and won’t lose sleep over it. The Atlanta rapper has had as many controversies as mixtapes, and he’s dropped a lot of mixtapes. Staying true has never a problem for one of hip-hop’s most influential artists.
Yet despite the glowing accolades, many view the “Danny Glover” rapper’s career as unmet potential. The media paints him as a lottery pick with flashes of brilliance, but not a perennial superstar. They want Thug to have his 2011 Dirk Nowitzki moment when he proves haters wrong and rises to the top.
It’s an understandable take, but it ain’t happening. The 28-year-old is quite satisfied with his place in rap. The desire for him to be more commercial says more about fan’s conflicting desires and less about Thug himself.
Checking all the boxes isn’t enough for some people
Young Thug entered the music industry at a unique time. Rolling Stone’s Charles Holmes called him, “a hyperbolic figure who arrived during the dying gasps of the mixtape boom and the slow birth of the streaming age.” At the time, 360 deals were heavily pushed by record labels, and Thug got trapped in a historically bad one. It didn’t help his rise, but he still pushed through.
By the time Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle” dropped, he was a rising star. Would he have risen further had he came out at the height of streaming? Maybe. But Thug checks all the boxes for the modern rapper.
He’s consistent. Thugger dropped 24 total projects since his first 2011 mixtape. He’s unique. His vocal variety is on a level that most can’t reach. He’s polarizing. Day-one fans call him a genius, outsiders say they can’t understand him, and others hate his controversies. He’s multihyphenate. The rapper’s fashion career is so bold he’ll interrupt a runway to fix somebody’s outfit. In an era that produces tons of followers, Thug blazed his trail.
Yet still, it’s assumed that Thug needs to do more. People want more sales, more accolades, and more conventional measures of success. Last year’s debut album So Much Fun topped the charts, but people still wanted more. He’s played the mainstream game with collabs with Camila Cabello and Ed Sheeran, but people still want more. We celebrate Thug because he marches to the beat of his own drum, but still wish he marched to the beat of others.
The conflicting takes aren’t unique to music. In recent years, the tech community has cheered on startups that push venture capitalists away, do things that don’t scale, and ignore easy solutions. But those same folks celebrate fundraising milestones, unicorn-status earners, and rapid growth. Sure, it’s different for every business. But those varying perspectives work better in aggregate across an entire industry. They lose weight when it’s all directed at the same company or person.
Thugger’s critics want him to find that “happy medium,” but it’s not gonna happen.
Commercial success requires some conformity
In 2016, Lyor Cohen, founder of 300 Entertainment, had a predictable argument with Young Thug about how to approach his career.
Lyor wanted Thug to connect more with fans, but Thug wants to maintain a mystique. Cohen also wants more focus on quality over quantity, but Thug wasn’t having that either. Thug’s indie rapper mentality conflicts with a label exec who wants to do is leave money on the table. Lyor has since left 300, but the same debates are likely still happening.
The narrative is ironic since authenticity is so celebrated today. But when mainstream hip-hop celebrates authenticity, the praise is given to artists like J. Cole, Future, and Beyonce. All three had moments where they went too commercial, let themselves down, and came back with more personal projects. But even those comeback projects—2014 Forest Hills Drive, DS2, and Beyonce, respectively— were still commercial enough to ensure that they sold well. They acquiesced to a level of conformity that Thug only does when he wants to.
The influence is what matters
These past few years have been pivotal for the artists following Young Thug’s footsteps. Here’s what Al Shipley wrote in Vulture in 2018:
2018 has felt like an inflection point for Young Thug, the juncture where he’ll either become a major star or start becoming more of a symbolic figure like faded stars often do. It already feels like his influence is becoming more ubiquitous than his own voice — two of 2018’s breakout rap stars, Atlanta’s Lil Baby and Memphis’s Gunna, are heavily influenced by Young Thug’s delivery.
Baby and Gunna are even bigger stars today. Thug has proudly pushed both Gunna and Keed, who are both signed to his YSL Record label. He embraces the mentor role and wants to see them win.
Here’s what he said in a 2019 No Jumper interview:
“Once upon a time, I was in Keed’s position… I used to pray for OGs to believe in me.. I just wanted to wake up every day and feel like, this nigga, the big homie, he can’t tell me nothing wrong… I probably would have felt ten times better. I probably would’ve made better music way back then. And I just be like that with them because they could be the ones.”
The chance of Thug’s protege’s surpassing him would actually make Thug happy. It means he did his job. Young Thug will still remind us he made this all possible. But if his mentorship works as designed, they will be better off anyway.